The Singularity Is Near


The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology’ is a 2005 update of Raymond Kurzweil’s 1999 book ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’ and his 1990 book ‘The Age of Intelligent Machines.’ In it, as in the two previous versions, Kurzweil attempts to give a glimpse of what awaits us in the near future.

He proposes a coming technological singularity (a period of rapid change), and how we would thus be able to augment our bodies and minds with technology. He describes the singularity as resulting from a combination of three important technologies of the 21st century: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (including artificial intelligence).

The four central postulates of the book are as follows: A technological-evolutionary point known as ‘the singularity’ exists as an achievable goal for humanity; Through a law of accelerating returns, technology is progressing toward the singularity at an exponential rate; The functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future; Medical advancements make it possible for a significant number Baby Boomers to live long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain. Kurzweil’s speculative reasoning and selective use of growth indicators has been heavily debated and challenged.

Kurzweil asserts in his ‘Law of Accelerating Returns’ that technology is progressing toward the Singularity at an exponential rate, relying almost entirely on empirical data. He expands on Moore’s Law with models showing that not only the return, but the rate of return is increasing exponentially. This assertion is put into the larger context of Big History (history of large spans) through a review of increasing complexity going back to the Big Bang and tracing information processing by nature through the present and boldly extrapolating into the future. In this view, the Singularity is just the next stage of the emergent evolution of complexity.

Kurzweil asserts that the functionality of the brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future. Kurzweil’s earlier books showed cerebral processing power as primarily the number of computations in a square inch multiplied by the area of the brain. In this update, however, he acknowledges the possibility of quantum processing (e.g. Orch-OR) and states that if his calculations of the processing capability of the brain are off by a factor of a billion, the double-exponential growth of technology will still catch up to it twenty-four years after his original projections. The Orch-OR theory is generally discredited among neuroscientists.

In a rebuttal paper, Hameroff asserts that the quantum processing power required for consciousness is an order of magnitude greater than can be expressed through conventional systems of processing measurement. This argument seems to ignore Kurzweil’s premise that accelerating returns in development of present technologies could, in a nominal period, overcome such a barrier. Additionally, other technologies could emerge which greatly lower the time required to reach the Singularity. A notable example would be more advanced forms of quantum computing capable of full neural emulation, which on a large enough scale, could function equivalently to the biological human brain.

Kurzweil asserts that medical advancements will keep his generation alive long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain. Kurzweil explains how nanobots will eventually be able to repair and replace any part of the body that wears out, but relies on other methods of medical technology to prolong our lives long enough to reach the singularity. The usefulness of this medical postulate then becomes a function of how long it will take to reach the singularity, something that has been thrown into question due to the possibility of quantum brain processing explored in many recent books by scientists, such as Roger Penrose’s ‘The Emperor’s New Mind.’

According to Kurzweil, DNA errors (in the form of either pathogens, viruses, and/or cancer cells) are the causes of most major illnesses. 130 different nanotechnology-related devices were invented in 2006 that could possibly eliminate the DNA errors that cause cancer. The only permanent way to get rid of the DNA errors (that are a part of cancer cells and/or the various pathogens found in other illnesses) is by injecting nanobots into the patient’s body. The high levels of SP2 protein that are found in cancer cells would be neutralized. The same nanobots that would lower the levels of SP2 protein inside the patient’s stem cells could also repair the long-term damage to the person’s DNA strand so that his/her descendants are less likely to acquire cancer and/other diseases in the first place. All methods of death that are not caused by accidents are caused by a long line of DNA errors that are never corrected over a very long period of time. Thanks to the cost-performance ratio, nanomedicine is becoming more affordable for the average person year by year.

Kurzweil first defines the Singularity as a point in the future when technological advances begin to happen so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace, and are ‘cut out of the loop.’ Kurzweil emphasizes that this will have a profound, disruptive effect on human societies and on everyday life, and will mark the end of human history as we know it. In place of normal humans, Artificial Intelligences and cybernetically augmented humans will become the dominant forms of sentient life on the Earth. The Singularity will be initiated once self-improving Artificial Intelligences (sentient, highly intelligent computer programs capable of quickly redesigning themselves and their offspring to improve performance) come into existence.

Underlying all of Kurzweil’s ideas regarding the progress of technology and the Singularity is the Law of Accelerating Returns. The Law states that technological progress occurs exponentially instead of linearly, meaning that each new advancement enables several higher advancements instead of just one higher advancement, and concordantly, every year, more useful inventions and discoveries are made than were made in the last. The Law of Accelerating Returns has a very important consequence in that extrapolation of exponentially improving technology trends into the future suggests, by Kurzweil’s analysis, that highly advanced technologies will arrive far sooner than linear-thinking people assume.

The creation of the modern Internet and the completion of the Human Genome Project are prominent examples illustrative of this point. Both were multi-year projects that relied on computer technology to reach completion. In both cases, critics derided them as hopeless since, in the beginning, both relied on computers that would have taken decades to process all of the necessary data. However, these critics had failed to take into account the exponentially improving nature of computer processing speeds and price-performance, and thus failed to see that, within a few years, the two projects would have access to vastly superior computers that would drastically shorten their timelines for completion.

Kurzweil lays forth his idea that the fate of the universe is to progress through six different epochs, characterized by the major paradigm shift that takes place after each one. The universe has already passed through four of these epochs and we are entering epoch five. Each step indirectly produces the next through chemical-, biological-, and technological Evolution (respectively). The Six Epochs are subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns, which states that each transition occurs more rapidly than the last. Kurzweil supports this final postulate with logarithmic graphs of the chronology of important events in the history of the Universe (i.e. – the Big Bang, the origin of life, the birth of the human race, the creation of the first computer).

Epoch 1 (Physics and Chemistry) starts at the beginning of the universe. In this epoch, information is mostly held in structures such as particles and atoms. That is, the most complicated stable objects in the universe do not exceed the molecular scale in size or complexity. Epoch 2 (Biology and DNA) starts with the beginning of life on Earth, suddenly giving rise to more complicated, yet stable, organisms that are capable of growth and self-sustainment. However, in this epoch organisms do not change within their lifetimes as evolution takes thousands of generations. Moreoever, in this stage, genetic information is stored in DNA molecules. Epoch 3 (Brains) is characterized by more and more complex organisms, necessitating the need for fast central control and thus giving rise to the evolution of brains. With brains, organisms can now change their behavior dynamically to suit changes in the environment and can also learn from past experiences. Evolutionary information is, in this stage, stored in neural patterns.

In Epoch 4 (Technology), the evolution of brains culminates with the evolution of humans, and the ability to create technology. In this stage, technological designs are also subject to evolution and information is held in hardware and software designs. Epoch 5 (The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence) is the era Kurzweil argues we are in the process of entering. It is where technology reaches a level of sophistication and fine-structuring comparable with that of biology, allowing the two to merge to create higher forms of life and intelligence. In Epoch 6 (The Universe Wakes Up), Kurzweil predicts that human/machine civilization will expand its frontiers into the universe, gradually (or perhaps explosively) consuming the contents of the cosmos until the universe reaches a ‘saturated’ state where all inanimate matter has been converted to substrates for computation and intelligence, and a truly universal super-intelligence takes form.

Human brain-scanning techniques are reliant upon computers and advanced machines, which are all subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns. Therefore, our ability to understand the way the human brain works is improving tremendously every year. Based on the current trends, brain scans should give us a sound understanding of how the human brain works by the mid-2020s. Using that information, scientists should be able to create simulated human brains inside of computers, leading to the first Artificial Intelligence (a thinking computer capable of passing the Turing Test) by 2029. The computer hardware of that era should also be powerful enough to meet the cognitive needs of a simulated human mind. Artificial Intelligence would inevitably prove superior to human intelligence since the former would combine the fast speeds, memory capacity and recall, and instant downloading/learning abilities of computers with the creativity and pattern-recognition abilities of the human mind, effectively constituting a being with the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither. Artificial Intelligences would also have the ability to edit their own software at will to instantly improve themselves, which is an ability humans naturally lack and can only approximate through laborious genetic engineering techniques.

Biology presents inherent and insurmountable limitations that originate at the molecular level. These limitations handicap both potential mental abilities and physical abilities. This reality will inevitably lead to the creation of synthetic replacement parts that are far more durable and capable than natural human organs, limbs and cells. Some humans will choose to incorporate these engineered prostheses into their bodies, becoming cybernetically enhanced. Nanotechnology will play a major role in human brain augmentation with the advent of brain nanomachines designed specifically for interacting with human neurons.

Brain cybernetics of this type would allow human users to vastly expand their cognitive abilities, to experience full-immersion virtual reality, and to directly interface with computers and other mentally augmented humans. Being naturally more powerful, the cybernetic portion of augmented human minds will come to predominate. A very broad range of advanced nanomachines will also be created, allowing the humans and machines of the future to alter their world with incredible power. Aside from brain augmentation, nanotechnology could be used for a variety of tasks including the repair of the Earth’s environment and the near instantaneous manipulation of physical objects via foglets (networked swarms of nanobots) so as to blur the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ reality.

Kurzweil foresees the computers of the future using three-dimensional computer chips composed of nanotubes. This architecture will allow them to operate at terahertz speeds. Computer advances like this will eventually make A.I.’s so powerful that they will completely take over the cutting edge of all scientific research and development, and will generate new advancements (including improvements to their own programming) so quickly that normal humans will not be able to follow what is going on. By this point, the Singularity will have been reached.

In the far future, A.I.’s and cybernetic humans will live almost exclusively in full-immersion virtual reality worlds, which will themselves be contained in advanced computers. Computers will grow ever more advanced, but at some point, the bottom limit to transistor size as defined by the laws of Physics will be reached, and performance improvements will only be possible through the creation of new computers or the expansion of existing ones. More and more inanimate matter on the Earth will be restructured to form useful computer substrate, but it will eventually prove insufficient, and the future machine race will radiate out from the Earth in all directions, ‘saturating’ first the solar system, then the Milky Way galaxy, and eventually the entire cosmos with ‘intelligence’ by converting unstructured, inanimate ‘dumb’ matter (e.g., Moon rocks, dead gas giant planets, meteoroids) into structured ‘smart’ matter that lives in the sense that it supports thinking, feeling A.I.’s. Entire celestial bodies of countless number across the universe will be totally converted into computer substrate. The length of time it will take to finish the task of ‘waking up’ the universe depends heavily on whether the speed of light can be surpassed or circumvented—the maximum rate of travel of course limiting the speed at which the advanced Earth civilization can spread across space to new locations. Kurzweil concludes the chapter by stating his belief that, while A.I.’s will inevitably prove vastly superior to humans in every way, he expects them to respect human life and to embody human values.

Technological progress in any field consists of a series of ‘paradigms’—particular methods used to solve certain problems. A given example of a paradigm would be the shrinking of computer transistors to make the computers more powerful. While there are innumerable technological paradigms, all share the same basic life cycles. The advances in the cost-performance of a particular technology, or the Life Cycle of the Paradigm, if graphed, will appear with three distinct phases: Slow Growth (kinks in the technology are still being worked out, and it is still struggling to establish a market base); Rapid Growth (explosive growth in the technology’s capabilities and user base starts); and Leveling Off (the technology matures as scientists find it increasingly more difficult to make improvements). Once a technology has reached maturity, it is replaced by a newer, totally different technology, meaning a paradigm shift occurs. This occurred during the 1960s when scientists found it impractical to shrink computer vacuum tubes any further and instead switched to transistors, which were newer and allowed the process of miniaturization to continue. This process of periodic exponential growth parallels biological evolution in two ways. First, biological evolution also occurs in spurts and, second, some biological innovations make organisms exponentially better or speed up evolution from that point onwards in an exponential manner. For example, the advent of DNA allowed life forms to evolve much higher levels of complexity and order.

While Gordon Moore first observed in 1965 that the transistor densities of integrated circuits were doubling every two years, an extended analysis shows that computers have been experiencing exponential improvements to their cost-performance (maximum number of calculations per second per $1,000) since at least 1900, when the very first electromechanical computers were invented. This trend in increasing performance has held steady across five computer paradigm shifts (electromechanical, relay-based, vacuum tube, transistor, and integrated circuit) and is now encapsulated by Moore’s Law. While integrated circuits will—like all paradigms—ultimately reach the limits of their possible capabilities, the exponentially growing performance trend will likely continue via a paradigm shift to a newer technology like memristors or three-dimensional molecular computing.


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